Substance use disorder affects everyone in a family. But the most deeply affected are children, who are figuring out how to form trusting relationships and who need stability and security to learn and grow up healthy.

Recognizing the need, social worker Janie Fuller-Phelps established a traumainformed childcare center in Huntington. As far as she’s aware, the River Valley CARES program that opened in May 2019 as a program of River Valley Child Development Services (RVCDS) is unique in West Virginia and beyond. “There’s nothing like it in the country that we’ve found,” she says.

RV CARES is for children 6 weeks to 2 years old who’ve been impacted in some way by Substance Use Disorder (SUD). “We look at three major criteria,” Fuller-Phelps says. “One, that the child was exposed in utero; two, that the child was removed from the caregiver or biological family home related to the dangers associated with SUD; or three, the child is considered at-risk”—that is, living with a parent who struggles with SUD.

What is trauma-informed care?

When children from homes dealing with addictions go to typical childcare centers, Fuller-Phelps says, they’re often asked to leave because of their behaviors or the level of care that they require. “Especially those who’ve been exposed in utero, even though they went through medical detox, they continue to have symptoms— gastrointestinal and neurological issues and sensitivity to light and sound.” RV CARES’ child-to-caregiver ratio is 3-to1, compared with the state-mandated 4-to-1 for this age range. Caregivers are attentive to the particular nutritional needs of each child. They do sensory integration activities that help children overcome sensitivity to light and sound. And they help children learn to identify their feelings and teach them self-soothing and other coping skills. “Our hope is to give them some fundamental building blocks that will help them be successful in whatever environments they’re in later.”

In recognition of the stress that unmet family needs can create for children, RV CARES also acts as a clearinghouse for donations of baby and toddler foods, baby essentials like diapers and clothing, and hygiene and cleaning supplies. It offers free mindfulness and yoga classes for women, too.

RV CARES is one of multiple supports in Huntington for families challenged by addiction—a tight network that can serve as an example to other communities. That includes Healthy Connections, a hotline staffed by family navigators who can make referrals and connect people with services that meet their needs. And KIDS Clinic—an acronym for Knowledge In Developmental Steps—is available to evaluate any child an adult is concerned about physically, psychologically, and socially, including those affected by SUD.

Asked about resources for children affected by SUD in other parts of the state and resources for children older than two years in the Huntington area, Fuller-Phelps says there isn’t a lot yet. She referenced several steps families across West Virginia can take.

  • A child who is acting out or having trouble focusing may benefit from seeing a mental health professional. Therapy isn’t just talking, Fuller-Phelps says. For kids who’ve experienced difficult family lives, a professional who has training in trauma can help them gain skills and change their perspectives, with lasting results.
  • For children who are having problems in school, she says, reach out to the school counselor or social worker to ask whether the child qualifies for an Individual Education Plan or a Section 504 Plan. It may require a diagnosis, such as ADHD—another reason involving a mental health professional can help. For a child who qualifies, an IEP or 504 plan can provide flexibility around the child’s condition—extended time on assignments, a little personal time in a quiet place away from the classroom on difficult days, accommodation for appointments.
  • Finally, for grandparents who have assumed the care of grandchildren and need an understanding ear, there are grandparent support groups across the state—check local churches and clinics and the SHUTTERSTOCK resources in this publication.

posted on May 14, 2020

image courtesy of Pixabay

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.